By all accounts, having a mentor is a good thing. A mentor is there to provide advice and guidance. The most common model in the academy is for junior faculty to be assigned a senior faculty mentor. The senior person helps steer the junior person through the first few years of teaching, figuring out the requirements for tenure, and generally negotiating the landscape of a new institution. The research on mentoring demonstrates its key role in recruiting and retaining good faculty.
Yet there are at least two shortcomings with the current way that mentoring happens on campuses. First, despite its clear benefits to institutions and individuals, we are far from a universal culture of mentoring in higher ed. My non-scientific research on the subject suggests that in the case of junior faculty some institutions assign mentors, some don’t (perhaps due to department size) but do provide broad mentoring support, and some do not have any system, formal or informal, of mentoring. Models for mentoring contingent faculty are few and far between and make the mentoring of junior faculty look positively robust.
Second, where it does exist, the model of one-on-one mentoring is not adequate. What do you do when confronted with a difficult work situation that because of power dynamics can’t be addressed entirely or adequately by your mentor relationship? Let me ground this in a specific example: a junior female faculty member receives a very critical peer evaluation of her teaching from a senior male colleague. Her attempts to discuss the evaluation with her colleague are rebuffed. But this individual is also a close friend of her mentor and has repeatedly sung his praises to her. What recourse does she have? The scenario could even be less dire. Even with the best intentions and careful selection, mentoring matchups don’t always work. What if you have a mentor assigned to you and that person isn’t a good fit (for whatever reason)?
The remedy for both of these shortcomings rest with senior faculty and administrators. We need to commit to and create a culture of mentoring on our campuses. This is an admittedly broad and amorphous goal. Simply saying that an institution has a commitment to mentoring, will not be adequate. Once it’s been said, though, there are ways to build it into the culture of the place.
Don’t wait or hope for mentoring relationships to be constructed. Obviously, the particulars will vary according to the size and other circumstances at each institution, but make mentoring the responsibility of someone at the vice provost or dean level. That person can certainly delegate the specifics down to the department or division level, but the mentoring buck needs to stop with someone. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to assume that someone else will make it happen. Make the provision of mentoring a part of what’s discussed in campus interviews—we tell job candidates about parking and healthcare, why not let them know that mentoring will be part of their experience? Build the expectation of mentoring into letters of hire. Create a community of mentors on campus, who through face-to-face meetings, and some sort of online platform, can talk to each other about challenges and best practices. And do not limit mentoring to tenure-track faculty. We all know the demographics. If we are neglecting to mentor contingent faculty we are doing them and our institutions a disservice. And what about mid-career faculty? Faculty who need support to make the jump from Associate Professor to Professor rank? Or tenured faculty who are beginning to move into campus administrative roles? Wherever and however possible, weave mentoring into the fabric of campus life.
But as you do, be attentive to the limitations of the one-on-one model described above. What about instead assigning groups of faculty mentors to groups of mentored faculty? In other words, what if we imagined mentoring on the model of networks? This is more consistent with how we conduct much of our academic lives these days anyway on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms that connect us to multiple people at once. The existence of a network would give the mentored faculty options in seeking guidance and resolution to problems. It would also give them an immediate community on campus. Rather than isolated meetings with one mentor, the network could meet at least once a semester and the mentored faculty would meet not just mentors, but other new faculty as well. Meaningful one-on-one relationships might grow out of these networks, and that would be an added bonus. But it would be an outgrowth of a broader network and would be more flexible than simply hoping that one-on-one assignments were a good fit.
Certainly, the network model comes with complications. What if, for example, the members of the network offer conflicting advice? Some conflicts like this could be avoided, though, if the mentors worked together, compared notes, and got to know the mentored faculty as well as possible. Rather than a barrier, then, the need for this kind of mini culture of mentoring within the network of mentors would bolster the overall institutional culture of mentoring.
When mentoring works, everyone wins. The mentored faculty receives guidance and advice that can only contribute to their job satisfaction. The mentors build strong ties with their colleagues. And the institution is stronger for this culture of support. That said, the old model of mentoring tenure-track faculty through the one-on-one model is inadequate. Mentoring needs to be woven into the fabric of an institution at all levels and should embrace a networking model of connecting mentors and mentored.